A review of the Washington National Opera's performance of 'Gotterdammerung'

BALANCING ACT: Jon Fredric West proved to be more than a booming tenor, evoking Siegfried's tender side as well.
BALANCING ACT: Jon Fredric West proved to be more than a booming tenor, evoking Siegfried's tender side as well. (Washington National Opera)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

It was supposed to be a triumph, then it was supposed to be a tragedy. The Washington National Opera's performance of "Götterdämmerung," the culmination of Wagner's four-opera "Ring" cycle, was offered Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House not in a staging by Francesca Zambello to complete her multiyear work, but in concert, without sets or costumes, a victim of the recession.

The miracle is that it was a triumph after all. Saturday's performance was not only a highlight of the season and a fitting follow-up to this spring's outstanding "Siegfried," but it was one of those magical evenings when everyone knew they were experiencing something special. At the end of a five-hour opera, nobody I saw headed for the doors; they all stayed to applaud.

Why was it so good? Because the cast went the extra distance beyond merely singing the notes and made theater happen onstage. Because the conductor, Philippe Auguin (a replacement for the company's ailing music director, Heinz Fricke), led the orchestra past its own limitations to convey the vivid power of the score. And perhaps because of the careful ensemble work that made the "Siegfried" so good. The singers who represented the dramatic heart of Saturday's performance had all worked with Zambello on the previous three "Ring" operas.

Despite a rumble of approving stamping from the orchestra pit as Auguin took his place (a sign that the musicians were enthusiastic), it was dispiriting, when the curtain rose, to see three opera singers in evening gowns at music stands instead of Norns. The next scene augured little better, with Jon Fredric West (a late replacement for Ian Storey), in short sleeves, as a jolly, bouncy, Yogi Bear-style Siegfried, and Iréne Theorin as his straight woman, both making loud, respectable noises.

But then the third scene began, with Gidon Saks as Hagen, Alan Held as Gunther and Bernadette Flaitz as Gutrune, and within about 10 minutes one forgot that this wasn't a fully staged production.

Saks, Held and Gordon Hawkins, in his short role as Alberich, were superb. They moved freely, played complex characters and sang fantastically. They elevated the whole night, as everyone else rose to the standard they set. None did better than Saks, whom I've liked before but who on Saturday showed himself to be a major artist; his Hagen was unusually young, an Iago-like villain bristling with dark anger. Held's Gunther had striking gravitas, a convincing king whose insecurities, though evident, were not immediately visible to his subjects.

There proved to be more to West than bounciness and loud ringing notes (or the vocal weariness that set in by evening's end); he could also sing with soft tenderness in his invocation of Brünnhilde as he drinks the potion that leads him to forget her. And Theorin proved strong, equal to the challenge of holding the empty stage alone for the final 15 or 20 minutes of music. In that final, towering monologue, she did resort occasionally to the very quiet singing she used in "Ariadne auf Naxos": a voice-saving strategy that unfortunately is almost impossible to hear over the orchestra.

Elizabeth Bishop was notable as Waltraute, Brünnhilde's sister; Flaitz, a fine actress, sang with a hooty approach that kept her from unveiling the full strength of her lovely voice. The three Rheinmaidens -- two of them (Jennifer Lynn Waters and Brandy Lynn Hawkins) from the company's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program -- acquitted themselves beautifully.

It is unclear how far Zambello's ideas influenced some of the interpretations. Thanks to stage manager Laura R. Krause, assistant director Andrea Dorf and lighting designer Mark McCullough, there were excellent production values of this non-production. But it's hard to know whom to credit for one of the strongest gestures of the evening, which was very much in the spirit of Zambello's insight -- given in an interview this spring -- that Brünnhilde is the true hero of the cycle, unacknowledged as such because she's a woman. Just before the immolation scene, Gutrune's realization that Brünnhilde, not she, was actually Siegfried's true love was marked not by Gutrune's falling by Siegfried's body but by a brief embrace between the two women. In a cycle of operas in which miscommunication continually drives people apart, this represented a unique gesture of reconciliation and redemption, taking place between two women who are left, after the havoc that the men have wrought, to pick up the pieces and redeem the world.

We should all pray that some generous donor will understand the powerful energy going on in this "Ring" and enable WNO to give us a full staging of the entire cycle. Until then there's one more performance of "Götterdämmerung" next Sunday. If you care about opera, you should be there.

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